Hi sumo fans, it’s been a minute, but I’m happy to return with an on-the-ground report from the latest basho. If you’re new here, I’ve done quite a few of these over the years (click my name or the tags or something), but not so many recently, because some stuff happened in the world. But now we’re doing them again! Let us rejoice.
This was my first basho since March in Osaka, except for an intai-zumo event in-between, which doesn’t really count. One thing you don’t appreciate from watching this basho in particular on TV is that the Kokusai Center feels so much smaller than even Osaka or Nagoya, nevermind Kokugikan. So, in that sense, the Kyushu basho is the most intimate basho with the best views of the dohyo, although there are other tradeoffs. If you’re a viewing purist who wants the best possible viewing angles to watch sumo, then this is your venue.
As I had to rush in and out of Fukuoka owing to work commitments, I allowed myself the small luxury of a two person box to myself. I’ve been in 4 person boxes in Tokyo which weren’t much bigger. It was nice to relax and stretch out, which isn’t something you normally associate with the sumo experience. One downside of course is constantly having to put your shoes on and off whenever you leave the box, so slip-on shoes are advised.
The sellout banners were down, but how that’s possible I will never know. If you can dream it you can do it for sure, but niceties aren’t quite enough to make me believe that a half-empty arena is actually sold out. There was a huge proportion of empty seats, although judging by how many foreigners – and potentially Tachiai readers? – were in attendance, I’m assuming BuySumoTickets.com were responsible for a good percentage of those who were there. I was specifically shocked by how many foreigners were in attendance before noon (and how many that left during the 5pm news break). Anyway, Fukuoka probably has the best selection of seats of any basho: they have a small selection of arena chairs that provide good value for money. This is augmented by the Kokusai Center’s unique “Pairs Seat” which is a box-like seat, but at a bench and with a fixed table.
If you’re someone who values other parts of the sumo fan experience that don’t involve what’s happening on the dohyo, you’ll want to also know that in Fukuoka, merch and food sales are also scaled way down. There aren’t a lot of snacks, for example, so if you are going later in the tournament I would suggest to bring your own. There are a handful of bento options, and they will sell out.
However, Fukuoka’s signature food trucks (aka, literally in Japanese, “kitchen car”) were back at the basho and dishing out various meals. I’m not sure whether you’ll be able to bring those food truck meals inside, almost certainly not the chanko. The food trucks are unquestionably the most unique part of the whole Fukuoka operation, as it means there’s a greater diversity of food in Fukuoka than at any other basho (apart from possibly Kokugikan), although there seemed to be a couple fewer trucks than there used to be before the pandemic. For those keeping score, the chanko on offer went for 700 yen (more than I’ve paid at any other basho), and was of the shio variety.
The Kyokai has made a couple crucial additions to the Kyushu basho experience though: there is a tented area where they host a “talk show” at 1pm (the guests on the day of my visit were former Tenkaiho and former Toyohibiki), as well as carnival games. I’d be curious to see whether these reappear at other tournaments.
If you thought the shooting gallery and ring toss type events would be tailor made for a carnival barker like former Asahisho, then you would be right, as he was running these stalls. I was encouraged by a couple excitable punters/super-fans to give it a go. The shooting gallery consists of a number of curry and chanko gift boxes you have to knock over from about 6 feet with a plastic dart gun. 500 yen gets you five shots, and it’s a good way for the kyokai to offload old merch. Each target hit gives you more prizes, ranging from old programs to toilet paper rolls and tote bags. I knocked down 3 of 5 targets for the bog roll but the real prize was a photo with Kiriyama-san himself.
Atmosphere wise, I would call Kyushu the relaxed basho. The dohyo-iri was good fun, Fukuoka isn’t a particularly raucous crowd but it was good to see beleaguered rikishi like Shodai and Kotoeko get a clap. Not that I’d ever be the guy not to clap a rikishi but the upper division really does have a lot of names worth cheering for these days. Ura’s cherry-blossom-pink-fringed kesho-mawashi (the other rank and filers have mostly white or gold) is really something. It does stink to go to a basho that doesn’t have a Yokozuna dohyo-iri though, you just really miss something special of the sumo experience.
I was a little let down by the torikumi on the day, as there wasn’t a lot of stuff in the undercard that I felt was “must watch.” I think this is a byproduct of many of the recent top prospects reaching the cusp of, if not the top division.
As for the Juryo guys, Shishi looks to have stepped up a bit. I didn’t get the feeling he has the most street smarts in the ring, so I had circled his bout against the wily Chiyoshoma as one to watch, but it ended up being fairly straightforward for the Ukrainian. Onosato, meanwhile, needed a torinaoshi to get past Daishoho. Undoubtedly Onosato will develop but I think that the anticipated monster prospect of mass destruction has not totally materialised. He may go on and zensho and get promoted and make me look foolish, but I think he may have a more gradual ascent even to the top division.
What else? Akua, as usual, provided the most drama televised or otherwise, winning, knocking out a shimpan, causing an opponent to require the big wheelchair and of course his recently developed ritual big salt throw, which I would say is not quite as impressive as Terutsuyoshi’s. Hopefully Hitoshi is ok. His injury made me recall that I’ve been at quite a few matches where a rikishi has been seriously injured (Ura, Takayasu, Hokutofuji, etc.) or pushed into retirement (Kisenosato), so I must be the bringer of doom.
The top division needed something to hold the almost half empty arena to life and fortunately Tamawashi provided it with a thunderous eviction of Tsurugisho, care of a vicious nodowa. A couple bouts later, the place took the volume up higher as local favourite Sadanoumi took out Oho in a see-saw battle, before Kotoeko despatched Hiradoumi (and nearly the gyoji) in a spirited Kyushu derby.
I hope Mitakeumi is ok, his knees completely gave out on the edge of the dohyo in losing to Atamifuji and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go kyujo later. That match felt very much like a changing of the guard, it’s very rare to see anyone have a crowd that’s louder than Mitakeumi’s audience but Atamifuji’s burgeoning stardom meant the crowd – including the ladies waving a newly-bought cheer towel in the next box – was very much behind the younger man. Mitakeumi will be 31 next month and just doesn’t appear to have the strength that he used to have.
Endo, meanwhile, still has a very comfortable number of brand partners getting behind his matches, no shortage of kensho, and the crowd was completely behind him against Hokuseiho who – for some reason – doesn’t seem to be able to capture the fans’ imaginations. That may be due to his sumo style (which admittedly is not always enthralling) or other non-sumo matters.
Hokutofuji vs Tobizaru with Konosuke on the call was the kind of fantasy match you’d draw up, although we didn’t get quite the duration of antics I might have hoped for. From there, pretty much all of the top matchups were absolute bangers. I actually found it hard to pick a rikishi to cheer, because in many cases I liked them both.
By the way, Gonoyama is for real! He went all the way, twice, with Daieisho. It looked in the arena without the benefit of TV that he lost twice, but he ran Daieisho really close. To me he looks like a sanyaku regular, and probably will be by this time next year.
I love the bits you’ll never see on TV, like the old man doing shiko at the top of the arena along with his hero as as a local favourite enters the ring. Or how the young lady taking photos calmly for six hours becomes overwhelmed with emotion when her favourite rikishi Shodai inevitably hits the deck. Or the flower arrangement accompanying the poem that has been placed as an art installation (seen above) near the front of the venue.
All of these things go into the culture of sumo, and while you don’t get any slow motion replays, you do get a lot more. Those are the moments that make me come so far and come back again and again and again once again. See you all next time.